By Rebecca Jameson, Director of 10u Programming, Sceney Tennis at Crooked Creek
We all know the feeling: Sweaty palms, elevated heart rate, stomach butterflies… the hall-mark symptoms of nervousness. Whether you are facing the pressures of a playoff match or anticipating a difficult conversation with your boss, the warm wash of anxiety is unmistakable. Feeling a little nervous before a match is perfectly normal; it shows that the outcome of what you are doing is important to you. But too much nervousness can cripple athletic performance and leave you feeling like you need to break out the Heimlich for the imminent choking that’s about to transpire.
Think back to the last time you felt truly nervous before an important match or a big presentation. Remember that wave of anxiety that began to build as the moment of truth was approaching? Like most people, you probably had the instinct to tell yourself to calm down (or, in my case, “Chill out, Girl Scout”). But this approach often can backfire.
Making the switch from a negative state of nervousness to a calm, positive state is difficult. The function of this cascade of hormones is to keep us alert and ready for battle. These hormones affect everything from our breathing rate to our heart rate. The momentum is both powerful and irreversible. In other words, your deep breathing and Enya playlist aren’t going to stop your body’s stress response. Furthermore, resisting the state of anxiety also is counterproductive. We need to be in a state of arousal and activation to perform at our best. Fighting our anxiety also can lead to feeling anxious about our anxiety, which causes more anxiety and makes things feel worse. So much for “Keep calm and carry on.”
Well, it turns out that you can trick your brain into interpreting that biological cascade into something positive. According to a study by Harvard Professor Allison Wood Brooks, we have it all backwards when it comes to dealing with anxiety. She found that individuals who reappraised their anxiety as excitement performed better than those who acknowledged their nervousness or actively tried to repress it. In one study, which could just as easily have been conducted at the local pub on a Saturday night, participants performed Journey’s hit song “Don’t Stop Believing.” Beforehand, they were instructed to say out loud “I am anxious,” “I am excited,” or nothing at all. Brooks used a computer program to measure pitch and volume, and found that individuals who said they were excited sang better, in spite of their nerves. Furthermore, these individuals expressed a heightened belief in their ability to perform well in the future. I suppose it could be said that individuals who engage in a little positive self-talk don’t stop believing in themselves.
How does this little trick work? The physiological response that your body has to anxiety is nearly identical to that of excitement. Those sweaty palms and stomach butterflies are all symptoms that result from arousal of the nervous system. You can trick yourself into believing that your heightened state is simply proof of how excited you are for your upcoming performance.
So, the next time you feel those pre-match nerves, why not run a little experiment? Tell yourself that you are SO EXCITED that clinching the City Finals for your team hinges upon the outcome of your match. While this won’t guarantee the victory, it will help you to perform at your best and will pave the way for your future endeavors.
USTA GEORGIA-GPTA TEACHING PROFESSIONAL SPOTLIGHT: Rebecca Jameson
Hometown (City/State): Marietta
How did you get involved in teaching tennis? The summer after I graduated from Davidson, I was asked to help out for one week of summer camp at Harrison Tennis Center. One week turned into the whole summer, which turned into a career, and I haven’t looked back since!
Best part of your game? Forehand groundstroke
Dream doubles match would be me and… My mom! We never had a chance to play doubles together when she still lived in Atlanta.
When I’m not teaching tennis, I’m… Hiking, backpacking, or trail running. So basically, I’m in the woods.
My favorite tennis memory is: I will always cherish my memory of the first time we won State while I was at Walton High School, because it helped me to appreciate the value of succeeding as part of a team.
My favorite professional player is: Roger Federer. He is a role model on and off the court!
#1 reason why I enjoy teaching & coaching tennis: I love watching people fall in love with the sport … those “Aha moments” when a new player realizes that tennis is fun, or when a returning player remembers how much they have missed the sport. I live for those moments!
What important tennis message do you want to promote? Never lose sight of your love for the sport. The wins and the losses and the long days of training are always more palatable when flavored with appreciation.